WFTB Score: 2/20
The plot: Iowan waitress Ali heads for L.A. with a head full of dreams about becoming a singing sensation. Originally, she finds only disappointment and another serving job at the burlesque lounge run by struggling chanteuse Tess; but she slowly begins to make an impression, not only with the owner but also already-affianced songwriter/barman Jack.
If, like Ali (Christina Aguilera), all you’ve ever dreamt about is singing, serving tables in an Iowa diner is going to get old at some point. Ali packs her suitcase with a picture of her departed mother and little else, and arrives in Los Angeles looking to fulfil her dream. Finding only rejection and her money stolen, Ali dejectedly visits the Burlesque lounge where owner Tess (Cher) puts on saucy shows featuring the likes of glamorous but troubled Nikki (Kristen Bell), while costumier and general fixer Sean (Stanley Tucci) hands out outfits and handsome Jack (Cam Gigandet) serves drinks. Ali talks her way into a bar job then, through sheer persistence, onto the stage; but it all seems to be in vain, since the club is struggling financially and Tess is under pressure from ex-husband Vince (Peter Gallagher) to sell up to wealthy patron Marcus (Eric Dane). However, when Nikki’s meddling forces Ali to sing live, her fierce vocals make everyone sit up; not least Jack, with whom Ali is staying. Nothing’s going on, though, because Jack has a fiancée – albeit on the other end of a phone line.
I haven’t read anything about how Burlesque came into being, but I’ll have a stab and see how I match up once I’ve finished. So, Christina Aguilera is interested in making a movie, and/or Steve Antin has a hokey old script doing the rounds, a saucy mash-up of (in no particular order) Flashdance, Cabaret, Moulin Rouge!, Chicago and Showgirls (amongst others). Everyone’s people get together to thrash out details, and Team Xtina starts to make more and more demands: “Hey, can Cher be in it?”; “Hey, can I do my own songs?”; “Hey, I am going to come out of this well, aren’t I?” “Oh yes,” says someone at Screen Gems, “We’re going for a PG rating; there won’t be anything too dirrty, don’t you worry.”
This is the only way I can imagine that Burlesque came to fruition: and the fruits are, to be blunt, rubbish. The story is almost a carbon copy of, for example, Showgirls – small-town girl comes to big city aching to dance – but where Nomi Malone was vicious, Ali is as nice as pie; and the change is not as welcome as you might think. Firstly, Ali’s brilliance – the performer all the other girls want to be, the lover all the men want to have, the saviour of the club in more ways than one – gets boring very quickly, since there’s nothing to balance it: she doesn’t let fame go to her head, she doesn’t seduce anyone, and with constant reminders of her poor dead mum, how can we hate her? Secondly, it changes the dynamic of the entire movie, from a potentially involving story into a vehicle for showing off Ms Aguilera’s talents: and while she undoubtedly has an extraordinarily powerful voice, two hours in its company is more than enough. Thirdly, despite that voice and a passable physique, Aguilera has no concept of how to play anyone other than herself; and she’s simply not very interesting. It has to be said, too, that the songs are pretty dreary, all doggedly rhyming on the title while trying out various styles, be they faux-musical or Madonna-lite.
If you’re wondering whether Burlesque has anything to recommend it besides being an extended promo for Christina, the answer is not really. The story is so predictable that most of the linking scenes (getting to know you…) are dealt with by way of montage; and opportunities for proper drama are spurned: Nikki drives away from the club, angry and drunk – she turns up later, unharmed; Natalie (Dianna Agron) eventually turns up and discovers Ali in her bed – no biggie, she’s disposed of off-screen; Marcus looks like he might turn out to be a controlling sleaze – in another film, maybe; here he’s just rich and a touch arrogant, and fades out of the picture without fuss. The familiarity with other films goes deeper than simple plot, too; the composition of many shots is identical to those in movies I’ve already mentioned. Which is actually a relief, since Antin’s alternative is a camera that focuses frenetically and fleetingly on grinding body parts, like a teenage boy in the club who knows he’s going to be thrown out any second. Sexy it ain’t.
Don’t count on Cher to liven things up, either. If she’s not quite propped up like Mae West in Sextette, the comparison is valid; there’s something disturbingly alien about Cher’s face, and while what she does with herself is a matter for her alone, her appearance is so distracting that it takes us away from Tess’s problems (quite apart from the fact that her face doesn’t really convey emotions any more). Gigandet is a pretty dull pretty boy, lumbered with his own embarrassing strip scene, while Alan Cumming – yes, he’s here too – reprises being emcee from Cabaret for a few minutes and everyone else fills in plot-driving stereotypes. The sole bright spot is Tucci’s acidic but sweet Sean: though his performance also comes from another film (The Devil Wears Prada), he at least brings wit and warmth to the part, his energy clearly arising from his own improvisations rather than the turgid script.
Some will complain that Burlesque is severely lacking in authentic burlesque performances, and they’d have a point. However, that’s really the least of its problems. It’s utterly derivative, predictable, gaudy, empty, and features a singularly unexciting performance in the lead role. Ironically, by seeking to come out of Burlesque smelling of roses, Aguilera makes herself look vain, vapid and – as far as acting goes – distinctly lacking in talent. She should have saved everyone’s time and stuck to singing Beautiful in a mirror.
NOTES: This may seem a very low score for an essentially harmless film, but it has to line up behind so many movies in its genre and others that it feels entirely fair. Would I really watch The Phantom Menace over this? Yes, I really would – if I had to.